Director Mandy Rausch keeps reminding the cast of Smart Pretty Funny that the new play is a romantic comedy.
"It could be done with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in the '90s," she said. "Or — who would do this kind of thing today? — Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling."
There's just one difference. Love and affection are at the center of the story, even if a handsome-but-flawed bachelor isn't.
Denton Community Theatre opens the comedy by Kathleen Anderson Culebro for just one weekend on Friday. It's the season opener for the PointBank Black Box Theatre, the company's smaller venue and the space dedicated to new and experimental work.
Rausch pitched the play to the community theater's production board after she saw its premiere at Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth almost a year ago. Culebro is the artistic director of Amphibian Stage.
The company took Rausch up on it, and she's been working on it since.
Smart Pretty Funny both follows the rom-com formula to a T — and also knocks it onto its head. The comedy opens in the midst of a weirdly exciting crisis. Meg, a physicist on a university faculty, has watched her boyfriend of six years walk out of her life and onto an airplane to Portugal. Like everyone else in the world, bad boyfriend Sebastian got a letter (from fate or the universe) revealing the identity of his one true love — and Meg isn't it.
Meg (played with convincing pique by actress Katie Weekley) is the quintessential odd one out. Her life's work is discovering the mysteries of atomic entanglement — but she didn't get a letter. She's lost her man, but unlike every rom-com out there, no one seems to be waiting in the wings.
"I wanted to see what I could do with it," Rausch said. "I'm always interested in new plays. And the last show I directed here was A Feminine Ending. This is kind of a thing for me, plays about strong, talented women who aren't quite sure of their worth. Meg is a physicist, a woman in a male-dominated field."
And Culebro's protagonist is a woman facing a heavy question about expectations.
"She starts to question if she really needs to be with someone," Rausch said. "Everyone around her keeps telling her not to worry, that she's sure to end up with someone. They all keep telling her she's smart, she's pretty, she's funny. She ticks all the boxes. How could someone like Meg end up alone?"
Culebro puzzles through the big questions that women face: Is romance a part of a woman's life, or is it her whole life?
Rausch threw out her typical, script-first approach to direct Smart Pretty Funny. After working on The Necessities at Second Thought Theater as assistant director to Joel Ferrell, Rausch said she realized a script can be a crutch.
"Joel would just watch and listen, and ask questions about why the actors made the choices they made," she said. "I challenged myself to listen to the rehearsals. I didn't do a lot of nose-in-the-script work. ... I fell in love with theater through [Denton's] Sundown [Collaborative Theatre] doing devised theater. You have to answer so many questions when you do that kind of theater. I think I learned with Joel that I don't have to have all the answers, and I don't actually need them."
Rausch is using a simple, modular set to tell the story. But there are whispers of magic — fairy lights and paper airplanes (remember grade-school love notes?) suspended from the ceiling.
Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 29-30, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 1, at the PointBank Black Box Theatre, 318 E. Hickory St. Tickets cost $15.
The play is rated PG for some vulgar language. For more information, call 940-382-7014 or visit the company's website.
FEATURED IMAGE: Smart Pretty Funny upends the typical rom-com with a story about Meg (Katie Weekley), a physicist who is left stranded when everyone in the world gets a letter revealing the identity of their true love. Meg doesn't get a letter and is sent on a voyage of self-discovery. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the PointBank Black Box Theatre.